What will you do for the Innocent?

Mary Magdala Community

Thoughts on the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 28, 2019

by Rev. Jim Ryan,  jimryan6885@gmail.com

As though immigrant children dying in what is euphemistically called the “custodial care” of the United States Government wasn’t enough, this past week we were subjected to yet one more cruelty to be done in our names.  It comes by way of the Attorney General of the United States (acting, really, as more the Consigliere for his Mob Family).  He announced that the federal government will resume murdering people and call it overdue justice.  One cannot help, given the evidence of earlier reversals, but believe that the occupant of the White House has no more interest in overdue justice than in learning that when referring to 2 Corinthians, one pronounces it Second Corinthians and not Two Corinthians.

No, this reversal has only one source and that is a petty, myopic and vindictive compulsion to reverse decisions made by Barack Obama.  He does this for no other reason than Obama’s name is all over the federal government’s determination that the capital punishment in the United States is structurally flawed, blatantly racist and eminently cruel and unusual punishment (as prohibited by the Constitution of the United States and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

This being said, I ask, “What will I/You do for the Innocent?” in the face of such an unjust and morally abhorrent practice.  Here’s where the 1st Reading of today’s liturgy comes into our reflection.

This dialogue of negotiation between Abraham and God (Genesis 18:20-32) has never been high on my list of notable scripture passages.  But this decision to resume state sponsored murder has made me appreciate Abraham’s effort to save the innocent.  Perhaps you are familiar with the Innocence Project.  It is led by lawyers and law school students with a mission to prove the innocence of those in prison who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced.  With the use of DNA tests, deep reviews of court files and transcripts, as well as operating with full knowledge that the system is structurally cemented in racist policies and procedures, the Innocence Project conducts its work for justice.  By its own reporting they have, to date, freed 365 persons, 20 of whom were on death row.

“What will you do for the Innocent?”  is Abraham’s persistent question to God that redounds today to us.  A system proven to have executed innocent people and, in the absence of structural change, will continue to do so under this newly returned policy.is a system that destroys the guilty and innocent with equal cruelty.

God says, “I will not destroy the city for the sake of the innocent 10.”

What grounds this conviction in us if not the belief in Hope?  Here we take our lead from today’s passage from Colossians (2:12-14).  The Letter to the Colossians is an interesting document.  Some scholars have demonstrated that Paul may not be the author of this letter.  This is based on the study of the text which uses vocabulary that Paul did not use in other writings, which proceeds with grammar that is unfamiliar in the Pauline corpus, and other intra-textual features.  Despite this, the fact is this document has been preserved in the Canon for the past 2000 years.  It teaches us something very important about the Cross and Resurrection.

Some Sunday preachers, in an effort to sound relevant, point to the Cross as an instrument of capital punishment, not unlike lethal drug cocktails, or gas chambers, or electric chairs.  But the Cross – in the historical aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion –  is different from these instruments.  The Cross is no longer an instrument of finality.  The Cross is the sign and instrument of hope.

In Colossians two passages speak to this sign of the Cross.  One reason why this Letter has been preserved, it seems to me, is that those first followers of Jesus, including Paul, knew they had a new message.  Up to the time of Christ himself the Cross was the end.  However, through his experience the end has become new beginning.  This simple truth changed history.  It is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book on Christology, for example, is titled, “Christ the Center.”  The first followers of the Risen Christ would no longer accept the power of the Cross as an end (which is just how the Roman politicians and the Jewish leaders wanted it to be seen.)  The Cross now represents hope.  It is with hope that the innocent and the guilty must be treated.

Remember the days of seeing the Cross as an accusation against oneself?  Earlier in my life I belonged to the Passionists, a religious community that inherited from its founder a piety that saw the Cross as an end.  It spoke to the individual who was an unworthy, weak, and sinful creature in need of God’s mercy.  The sinner needed to be in a perpetual state of repentance due to one’s human state of depravity.

This piety was truncated, in that the Cross represents freedom and new life and not perpetual self-flagellation.  Following Resurrection the Christian may no longer see the Cross as an end, but rather as a new beginning in hope.  Fortunately, the Passionists took to heart the revelations that scholars brought to 20th century theology which acknowledged that the message of the Cross is nothing without the hopeful experience of Resurrection.

So, when you find yourself negotiating within yourself the morality – both personal and social – which guides your view of the innocent, just maybe you will follow the divine lead  and act on behalf of the innocent.  Policies of capital punishment, being human and therefore flawed, must give way to a humanity that practices justice which leaves behind vengeance and takes up hope.

A Prayer  (JR)

Brother Jesus, you are the Just One unjustly killed,

the Giving One whose gift was rejected,

the Lamb of God who was put to death.

You are the widow and the orphan,

the refugee and the outcast,

the marginalized and the rejected one.

Yet, it is your Gift of Love – the giving of your life –

that encourages us to live New Life,

which is the peace, the triumph of your cross.

Keep us in your love, now and forever.   Amen.


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